Three Tips to Help Reduce Exam Panic

Three Tips to Help Reduce Exam PanicThis week we welcome guest writer Alexandra Muskat, a recent law school graduate, to discuss some important ideas for reducing that inevitable worry around exam time.

It’s that time of year again where law students around the country begin to fill the library, crammed together at desks, crouched over books, flashcards, and computers trying to absorb the last three months of nuances, technicalities, and teacher preferences. And with this time comes plenty of panic.

If you’re like me, you may be in the corner, panicking, possibly crying, about having to study/sit for the exam. Either scenario is okay. Law school exams and the bar exam are scary. But the panic does not have to control your life. Here are some tips to keep exam panic under control I wish I had learned prior to my second run at the bar exam. I promise, if you implement just some of these tips, you will not only feel better during the exam, you will get more out of the time you spend studying.

1. Visualize the Panic

This is probably the scariest thing you can do during the weeks you spend studying, but it is the most effective. Sit in a quiet place, or somewhere where you can jam headphones/earplugs in your ears to tune everyone out, and take a few (at least five) deep breaths. And I mean deep. Breathe in slowly until your belly is full and then breathe in a little more. Exhale slowly, exaggeratedly slowly. Repeat.

When you feel that oxygen head rush start to mellow you out, I want you to imagine every single thing giving you anxiety about the test. Imagine failing and how you’ll deal with that. Imagine every question that could be on the exam and how scary it will feel to start writing or filling in the bubbles. Imagine having to use the restroom with no time to spare. Imagine getting a migraine in the middle and not being able to see. Imagine being the last one in the room while everyone else is starting their break because they knew the material better than you.

And then, after you’ve imagined everything that could go wrong, imagine all the things that will go right.

The process of living through the panic, and all the things your inner critic is telling you will go wrong, will get so boring that by exam day you won’t have anything left to panic about.

2. Don’t Eat Anything Different Before the Exam

Now, it may just be me, but I have a very sensitive stomach and if I am anxious, my stomach is the first to let me know. For a few days leading up to the exam, try not to add anything new into your diet. I don’t mean you should eat the same thing every day, but don’t try to add hummus into your diet the morning of your Human Rights exam after not having it for two years because you have a food sensitivity to it…I did that and while I passed the exam, my stomach distress caused so much extra anxiety I cried twice during the test.

There is a considerable amount of research that the gut and the brain are in constant communication, and what affects one, affects the other. If your brain is anxious about the exam, it may send signals to your gut which can cause digestive distress. Vice versa, if you’ve eaten something that doesn’t gel well with your stomach or intestines, your gut will notify your brain, which can cause anxiety and stress that has nothing to do with the exam. The easiest way to limit the chance of this communication is to stay clear of the foods and drinks you know don’t work for you, or don’t work for most (i.e. alcohol; junk food).

3. Take Breaks When Studying

This one sounds like common sense, right? But I cannot tell you how many times I showed up the following semester and listened to my classmates drone on about grades they hadn’t expected to get after studying for 14 hours a day. What I learned was that when most people say they studied from 8am to 10pm straight, it actually means they burned out after a couple hours and spent a chunk of the day surfing the internet.

Part of what helped me keep my exam panic down during my first semester of 1L year was learning the Pomodoro Method. Essentially, you pick an interval (most people do 25:5minutes) and stick to it for a few hours. I would study for 25 minutes and then take a five-minute break where I could do anything I wanted. This allowed me to be really intentional with my time.

Slowly, over the years, the intervals have increased to an hour and a half to two hours studying, with a fifteen minute to half hour break. But any time I feel panicked about the amount of work I have to get done, I break it into smaller intentional moments and after a few intervals, the panic slips away. It allows you to become invested in the time you’re spending studying.

Two Final Tips for the Actual Exam.
  1. Don’t forget to breathe! Inhale for a slow four seconds, hold it for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, hold it for four seconds, and repeat. Breathing in such a pattern has been shown to slow the heart rate and control adrenaline (which can lead to that racing heart feeling we all get during exams).
  2. Start. The hardest part of any test is just starting. Start reading, start outlining, start writing.

Law school exams and the bar exam are hard, but they aren’t impossible. And part of the battle is keeping your stress levels under control. There will never not be stress when it comes to this path we’ve taken for ourselves, but we can learn to not be as affected by it by implementing the simple tips listed above.


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About Alexandra Muskat

Alexandra graduated from Suffolk University Law School in 2017 and passed the UBE in all 29 states, not that anyone’s counting. She has a bachelors from Florida International University in English Literature with concentrations in Psychology and Creative Writing. In addition to working on her first novel, she works part time consulting in laboratory compliance.

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